TORONTO â€” The past couple of days have been a crash course in everything Toronto Raptors for newcomer Serge Ibaka.
On the eve of his Raptors debut, however, the athletic power forward had yet to take the floor with two of his key teammates â€” DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
While the Raptors returned to Toronto after their eight-day all-star break, DeRozan was delayed by a funeral, while Lowry had travel issues, and neither made it back to Toronto for practice Wednesday and Thursday.
“Both guys had unfortunate situations,” coach Dwane Casey said. “It was disappointing we couldn’t have our whole group together but stuff happens. They communicated with us and let us know. We still had a great practice, enthusiastic, getting stuff done. I liked the feel of our practice today.”
Raptors president Masai Ujiri acquired Ibaka last week in the trade that sent Terrence Ross to Orlando, and Ibaka was in town for barely a day before the team dispersed for the break. Casey sent Ibaka away well-armed though, presenting him with a laptop complete with video of all the Raptors’ plays to study during the break.
He’ll make his debut Friday when the Raptors (33-24) host Eastern Conference rival Boston (37-20).
Ujiri made a last-minute move at the trade deadline Thursday, acquiring P.J. Tucker in a deal with the Phoenix Suns for Jared Sullinger and two second-round draft picks.
Casey was pleased with his team’s two practices with Ibaka, calling them “spirited.”
“A lot of defensive work, terminology offensively. He is a refreshing addition to our team,” Casey said of the seven-year NBA veteran. “He’s a bright man, he picks up things very quickly on both ends of the floor. He’s been through the wars, seven years, he’s been to the NBA finals. He knows the game.
“It’s not like we’re putting a young guy in there and just hoping he picks it up. Is he going to make mistakes? Yes. But as long as they’re hard mistakes, I can handle that.”
Casey credited power forward Patrick Patterson with taking Ibaka under his proverbial wing.
“With Serge, it’s all about plays pretty much, and play calls,” Patterson said. “He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s very smart, IQ, he’s played with the best in the league, he’s been in crunch time situations so he knows the game of basketball through and through.
“So with us, it’s just about talking to him about where to be on what plays, play calls, understanding certain words and certain schemes and where guys like to be in that set.”
Patterson, who’s missed the last six games with a nagging knee injury, said he’s confident he’ll play Friday night.
“It feels good to be back out here playing, back out here with my teammates, running up and down the court, just playing basketball again,” Patterson said. “I’ve never had a knee injury before in my life. It sucked.”
What also sucked was watching the clock tick down on the NBA trade deadline, which came and went at 3 p.m. Thursday.
“How much time we got left? About an hour?” Patterson asked after Thursday’s practice. “Yeah, so it’s soon. . . everyone is looking at their phones, and just counting the clock down as we progressively go towards the end, but once the time hits everything will be a lot better, everyone will be good.”
Patterson later tweeted a sad face, in response to Sullinger’s trade, and video of him and Sullinger singing.
“Gonna miss this dude.. Best of luck out in Phoenix fam,” Patterson wrote.
With the trade deadline and all-star break behind them, and with just 25 games to go in the regular-season, the Raptors look to hit the ground running Friday in hopes of catching the top teams in the Eastern Conference. They’re seven games back of first-place Cleveland, but just two games behind third-place Washington.
“These two days â€” and that’s why it was important for DeMar and Kyle to be here, but things happen â€” we treated these days like training camp,” Casey said. “Long practices, very physical practices, enthusiastic. We have to treat these last 25 games like five, five-game series. This is it.
“We’re going down the stretch and right into the playoffs, it’s not going to be easy. We’ve got to be ready, we have to do it with enthusiasm, passion. Whatever happened the last three weeks is down the drain. We’ve got to look forward and use these last 25 games to build that momentum. Is it going to be easy? No. Is it going to be perfect? No. But we have to go into it with the passion and confidence and swagger we had the first third of the season.”
A couple extra days of rest certainly couldn’t have hurt DeRozan and Lowry, who made their third consecutive all-star appearance last weekend in New Orleans, and whose summer off was shortened by their appearance for the United States at the Rio Olympics, where they won gold.
“That’s kind of like a non-issue for us,” Ujiri said on Lowry’s absence. “These guys understand where we are and where we are as a team. To be honest I would rather Kyle does nothing until we play. He needs all the rest he can get. I said it to him in New Orleans ‘Go get some rest.'”
DeRozan is averaging 35.5 minutes a game this season, while Lowry is logging 37.7 minutes a night.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press